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Shepherding in the next generation

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Recent graduate Laurel Rozema scratches the head of one of the ewes

Recent graduate Laurel Rozema scratches the head of one of the ewes while the younger shepherds learn about using the shearers to fit the ewes for show. Laurel stood the ewe up on a stand and played with her ears and head to keep her still while she buzzed around the ewe’s stomach and back.

Everyone has their own reason for showing up in the Buffalo High School FFA barn. Some want to learn about larger livestock. Others want to make friends at a new school.

Each of this year’s FFA shepherds — Aniya Tegenu, Lauren Bergstresser, Hailee Vahoski and sisters Laurel and Heather Rozema — joined the program with a goal — to raise a market lamb to show and sell at the county fair. By the end of fair week, however, the unforeseen skills and experiences gained over months of shepherding far outweighed original expectations of this year’s participants.

The shepherds, whose ages run from eighth grade to a graduated senior, have a range of experience and knowledge of sheep and livestock among them. Older, more experienced students, like recent graduate Laurel Rozema, help to teach and guide the younger students through the seasons. All five shepherds said they acquired skills such as communication and collaboration that will benefit them in the future.

“There is a lot of work that goes into it, a lot of teamwork,” Heather Rozema said. “It’s not just one person out there doing all of the chores; there’s five of us.”

Hailee Vahoski, center, straddles a lamb while everyone holds the lambs

Hailee Vahoski, center, straddles a lamb while everyone holds the lambs still in an outdoor run on Thursday. With everyone at the barn for the afternoon, the shepherds were finalizing whose lambs were whose and which market lambs were up for selection by members.

Sheep graze in the FFA pasture

Buffalo High School’s FFA shepherding program works out of the barn behind the school. The herd has a small pasture for grazing in addition to the enclosed barn where the herd stays in the winter and the market lambs stay in the summer.

Lauren Bergstresser waves her hands in the air

Lauren Bergstresser waves her hands in the air as she talks with the flock of ewes as they move corners of the pasture. The ewes were already separated from their lambs as the kids talked about which lambs and ewes would be kept or sold.

Aniya Tegenu runs the hose on her shoulder

Aniya Tegenu runs the hose on her shoulder as she works with Heather to fill the water tank for the ewes in the pasture after weening the lambs and moving them into the barn. Aniya was one of two middle school students who participated in the program this year, with hopes that the middle schoolers could learn from the high school participants.

Shawn Miller visited the FFA barn

Shawn Miller visited the FFA barn in late April to talk with the students about what to look for when deciding which lambs to keep for market, for breeding and which to cull out of the herd and sell. The help of community members grants students access to the knowledge of experienced herdsmen.

The shepherds were divided into groups, taking on chores and working alternating weeks to guarantee that everyone pitched in with the daily work of feeding, watering and checking on the flock of roughly 10 Dorset sheep.

“It just taught me kind of how to just listen to other people’s opinions and work,” rising senior Vahoski said. Vahoski had raised livestock on her own before, but raising the herd with a team provided benefits, such as shared knowledge and workloads, and challenges, such as communication between a large number of people.

Because the program extends beyond raising market lambs and into caring for a flock year-round, program participants learn about more than raising meat animals. Selecting a ram and overseeing breeding in the fall, monitoring lambing season in the spring, implementing annual culls of the flock and learning how to shear before the summer heat arrives are all added components of the learning process.

“I learned how to pull a baby sheep out of a mama sheep. I didn’t know we were going to get to do that,” Bergstresser said, recalling her experience during a difficult birth earlier this year.

Bergstresser was not alone in that experience, with both Rozemas noting the value in learning how to feel if a lamb is turned the correct way and how to help if not.

Practical herd management skills, such as checking on a lamb, shearing or giving shots are all part of the job of a livestock owner — and they are on the top of the list for skills learned in the program.

“(The) first couple of times it’s rough, but after you get used to it, it’s easy peasy,” Laurel Rozema said of learning how to do things such as give shots. “You get used to those things that make you uncomfortable and get out of your bubble a little bit. And you learn a lot about yourself, as well as the animals and how they react to different things.”

Heather Rozema watches the scale as she weighs

Heather Rozema watches the scale as she weighs food during an evening feeding in late June. Each participant is responsible for taking care of their own market lambs once they have been selected. The students take turns taking care of the remainder of the flock throughout the year.

Laurel Rozema holds a lamb up while Lauren Bergstresser squeezes

Laurel Rozema holds a lamb up while Lauren Bergstresser nervously squeezes on an ear tag in mid April. The lambs are all tagged to keep track of lineage but this was the first ear tag Lauren had ever put in.

Laurel Rozema pauses for a moment

Laurel Rozema pauses for a moment inside the sorting pen, waiting for notes to be taken about each lamb. After a group of ewes and lambs were run into the pen, Laurel would lift out the lambs so the ewes could be let out into the pasture. While sorting, notes were taken about which lambs would be kept and sold.

Lambs in Buffalo High School’s FFA shepherding program

Lambs in Buffalo High School’s FFA shepherding program peak inside the barn to watch students constructing smaller pens after school in late April. The shepherds were building pens so as to soon separate their market lambs for individual feeding moving forward.

Heather Rozema shakes a bucket of food

Heather Rozema shakes a bucket of food while searching for the ewes they wanted to sheer first. The shepherds worked with a local shearer in late June to remove the wool of the flock for the summer.

One of the main benefits of the program, recognized by both students and assistant FFA adviser Bev Boden, is that any FFA student may raise lambs, regardless of where students live or if they could do it on their own. The Rozemas, who also show rabbits and poultry, enjoy the shepherding program because of the access it gives them to raising larger animals like sheep, in addition to what they raise at home.

“One thing that’s very, very nice about the shepherds program is that a lot of kids don’t have a place to take care of the sheep,” Lauren Rozema said. “The shepherds program gives them a place to keep their sheep, a place to actually have a sheep and give them opportunities to do a lot of things that they might have not been able to do before.”

As an educator, Boden sees value in the program beyond herd management and daily care skills. She is excited about the life skills that shepherds can continue to use and learn from as they move through and beyond high school.

“I think a big thing, especially right now, is the 21st-century skills, and the shepherds program is hitting on those with the communication and the leadership and the responsibility, ownership, all of that stuff,” Boden said. “It’s giving them skills, even if they stay in town, that they can use those skills to move forward whether it’s in college or a trade school or just in a work atmosphere. If they decide just to go to work, they’ll have those skills taught through this program to be able to benefit them in the future.”

In the final days leading up to fair the show

In the final days leading up to fair the show fitting began as shepherds learned how to card, trim and wash the lambs market and breeding animals for show. A wool card is a small brush with tines that helps give the wool a lighter and fluffier appearance.

Heather Rozema leans down for a better view of the fitting

Heather Rozema leans down for a better view of the fitting that assistant FFA adviser Bev Boden is explaining to the four new shepherds. Laurel Rozema was the only returning sherpherd to the program although Heather helped last year.

Laurel Rozema relaxes from the top of a panel

Laurel Rozema relaxes from the top of a panel after unloading and stacking a load of donated hay at the barn in late June. The group waited until dusk to unload the hay in hopes of avoiding the high temperatures of the day.

While not everyone will be returning to the program next year because of graduations or scheduling conflicts, incoming freshman Tegenu knows she will be back and is looking forward to improving skills and future relationships with her lambs.

“I want to do it again because I want to have the exact same experience but better,” Tegenu said.

Hailee Vahoski blow dries her lamb off with a blower

Hailee Vahoski blow dries her lamb off with a blower before the start of the sheep showmanship classes on Tuesday of fair week. Vahoski started school at BHS in January and was excited to join a program that allowed her access to be around larger animals again.

After getting the sheep prepared

After getting the sheep prepared and ready to go for show, the shepherds all quickly got dressed in formal show attire. For FFA showman, a strict dress code of white shirts, black pants, socks and shoes, and an FFA jacket with their number is required in the ring.

BHS graduate Laurel Rozema watches the judge

BHS graduate Laurel Rozema watches the judge move around the group as she shows in the FFA showmanship class for county fair. As the only returning shepherd and the oldest participant, the younger kids all looked to Laurel for advice and knowledge. Laurel’s sister Heather joked that she knew Laurel would be back next year to help when she could because that was the kind of person she was.

Heather Rozema, Aniya Tegenu and Hailee Vahoski sit

From left, Heather Rozema, Aniya Tegenu and Hailee Vahoski sit with two market lambs while they wait for their turn in the sale ring. Aniya had a hard time selling her lamb but is still excited to try the program again next year.

Photojournalist

Jessi Dodge joined the Bulletin as a photojournalist and a Report for America corp member in 2020. If you have ideas or comments, reach out at jessi@buffalobulletin.com.

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